Expert excursion “Participatory urban development in international dialogue”
In June 2015, Berlin hosted Make City festival which focused on the issues of urban commons, with hundreds of events around the city covering participatory urban development, with hundreds of guests from around the world to share stories and experiences from cities they come from. I was part of a group of around 15 people from more than 10 different countries from Central and Eastern Europe who were invited by HBF to participate in the Festival, share experiences and visit interesting projects of urban commons in Berlin.
For me, as an activist involved in public space movements in Armenia, the program was a great opportunity for learning and exchanging about urban commons' movements and activities in such a multicultural environment. Not only we had a chance to present our projects and initiatives in the framework of the festival, but we also had a very interesting lecture on urban commons, attended official presentations at the Make City Festival Center, had excursions to alternative and participatory public spaces and participated in a creative workshop for discussing trends and future city scenarios related to participatory urban development.
I would like to single out some of the program components which were most interesting for me:
- The feminine space Berlin/Wedding, Niche Art & Architecture. This collective offered us an excursion in Wedding district of Berlin. This district is overwhelmingly populated by migrants and the poverty level there is higher than in other parts of the city. During the interactive excursion the representatives of the Niche collective offered us tasks which were connected to observing public spaces in the district from the viewpoint of how inclusive they are, particularly for women. First we stopped at a spot on a pavement and observed an area which was full of male dominated spaces - a betting club, a barber’s shop, a computer games’ shop, etc. Women were mainly using the street for moving from one place to another but not for social or recreational activities. The second space was a café started by a woman who aimed at creating a safe space where women could socialize in this district. And finally, the third space was a playground – walked around and then shared our observations about how inclusive the space was for different social groups. This excursion was interesting for me because I am involved in a feminist collective in Yerevan where we organize different actions for feminizing public spaces, such as open air discussions, graffiti, public readings of feminist poetry, writing and publishing, etc. So this was an opportunity to observe inclusive and exclusive public spaces in a different context and reflect upon reasons of exclusion. In many ways the public spaces are the reflection of the values and culture of the people who create them. We didn’t have much opportunity to discuss what strategies they use in Berlin for creating more women-inclusive spaces but I would say the masculine spaces are quite similar by the types of activities, by their construction, written messages and images, etc.
- Excursion to Prinzessinnengarten with Svenja Nette. For me this Garden was a great example of “Sustainability in action”. In ecological terms this place presented a wide diversity of plant species which can now rarely be found because of standardized agriculture. The Garden also had a second-hand material workshop and a bicycle workshop; in economic terms the place is self sustainable – they receive income from the café in the park, from educational courses and setting up urban gardens at schools and other places in Berlin, from selling the products produced in the garden, etc; in social terms the place is very participatory – a group of people took an abandoned piece of land in the city and built it up together as a common space where practically everyone who wishes can get involved. Unlike, for example Templehofer Feld where different groups or individuals had their own little gardens or slots, here everything belonged to everyone, and I appreciated very much this approach because it also helps creating a culture of co-working and collective responsibility. One big difference from Yerevan is that the municipal government is more open for cooperation with civic initiatives. In this case, the garden had a contract with the municipality which gave them the right for using this space for free for a certain number of years (to be renewed in 5 years if I’m not mistaken). Of course, the city authorities are still very much profit-oriented and there is always the risk that if a good business deal comes up they will lease the land for e.g. construction of a business center or something similar. So from time to time people have to stand up for defending their space at Prinzessinnengarten, and they are also not allowed to do any permanent construction there. Moreover, the municipal authorities “force” certain kinds of expenses, e.g. the people who run the Garden are not allowed to do the cleaning of the surrounding space themselves; instead they have to pay 800 Euros per month to the private company who won the cleaning tender in the city. Despite all challenges, Prinzessinnengarten is an excellent example of how people can create alternative, sustainable and inclusive spaces. In general, urban gardening is one of the ideas which I have brought home with me and will look for opportunities of embedding it in Armenia, with certain context-specific modifications.
- Excursion in Tempelhofer Feld with Christian Hajer. Tempelhof Airport was one of the airports in Berlin, it was constructed in the 1920s and stopped operating in 2008, since then it turned into a communal area and the biggest park in the city. The fate of the former airport was finally decided in the 2014 referendum where the citizens voted for having 100% of the area as a public park as opposed to the project of apartment construction on around 25% of the land of the former airport. The aspect that interested me most in Templehofer Feld was its transformation from an airport - a highly centralized-organized and at times even militarized place, to an urban park – a decentralized, inclusive and eco-friendly space. It was very interesting to see how people self-organized and created spaces for different kinds of recreational and social activities there. We saw at the Field a diversity of age groups, of social and ethnic backgrounds, and different activities such as sport, gardening, barbeque and even a temple. It was also very valuable to have a guide who was very well aware of the history of the place as well as urban planning issues in general. The contrast of militaristic and aggressive architecture of the 1930s and the current urban garden was quite shocking; actually the fact of ending our excursion at the airport building, near the statues of eagles which I associate a lot with the fascist government of the 1930-40s was a bit depressing but also very reflective. It provoked discussions in our group about history and memory, people and architecture.
- Collective workshops: Trends and future city scenarios related to participatory urban development, facilitated by Daniel Probst. One of the aims of this workshop was to facilitate discussions about future participatory urban development projects in our cities and possibilities of cooperation within our group. From my point of view, we did not have enough time to go deep enough during the workshops. However, what captured my attention, were the facilitation methods and our internal group dynamics while going through different tasks. This is connected to my professional interests, as I do free-lance facilitation of various seminars and training courses by using similar methodologies. So I noted down certain things for future implementation in my work and in this sense the workshop was very productive.
In addition to all the interesting program components, I would like to emphasize the importance of the exchange among the members of the expert excursion group itself. For me it was both, interesting and empowering to get to know people who work on very similar issues in their cities. I did not expect to see so many common difficulties and many similar strategies of struggle for urban commons. I noted that in all places individuals and groups have to confront “alliances of state and business” directed towards privatization and profit-oriented policies. The general apathy and disengagement of the population was also quite common for most of the places, and then we had stories of how in each city relatively small groups of people manage to self-organize and mobilize others for the protection of their rights and their urban commons. I got very useful insights and much inspiration from the colleagues, and I’m sure that we can support each other and cooperate in the future.
Last but not least, the whole program was extremely well organised – we had a detailed program and instructions about getting to places, even the lunches and dinners were organized at places which were somehow connected to the topic of the program. Moreover, the organizational team shared with us the contact information and websites of the collectives or initiatives who were hosting us – it gives an opportunity for independent research and for keeping in touch with these people later.